Getting to grips with David Cameron today is as difficult as getting to grips with who Tony Blair used to be, 13 years ago. Like the early Blair, Cameron disguises a steely will with winsome charm; like Blair, he manages to float gracefully over the rifts of interest and ideology that divide his country and party. And, like Blair, the veils of ambiguity that shroud him reflect a complex and contested history. But the history that made Cameron is far longer and richer than the one that made Blair. It begins with the government of Pitt the Younger in the 1790s and its interminable war with revolutionary and Napoleonic France. Since then, the history of the Conservative Party has been inextricably entangled with the history of the British state.
Sometimes, the Conservatives have been a divided and querulous minority. For more than a generation after the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, the Liberals - and still more, liberalism - enjoyed a virtual hegemony. Before the First World War, it looked as if the tacit Lib-Lab coalition of Asquith, Lloyd George and Ramsay MacDonald might repeat that performance. In the golden years of the first Blair government, the hungry paladins of New Labour thought that a new "progressive century" was about to dawn. But although the Conservatives have sometimes been down, they have never been out. More than once, Disraeli's captivating chutzpah defeated Gladstone's earnest rectitude. Despite the Lib-Labs' supremacy before the First World War, the Conservatives dominated the politics of interwar Britain, and predominated during the half-century between the fall of the Attlee government in 1951 and the beginning of Blair's. Now, history has come full circle. The Conservatives have once again picked themselves up from the floor. They are far from certain to win a general election in May, but they are the clear favourites.
This extraordinary story is the backdrop to David Cameron's equally extraordinary rise from fresh-faced parliamentary tyro in 2001 to apparent party saviour today. By lasting for so long, the Conservatives have defied the laws of political gravity. Against all the odds, they survived the rise of organised labour and the long-drawn-out transformation of an oligarchic polity, dominated by a tiny, hereditary aristocracy, into a mass democracy. They not only survived, but played a leading part in the liquidation of the biggest colonial empire in the world ever. In Britain, this story is so familiar that we are apt to forget how aberrant it is. Yet no other conservative political party in Europe can touch them. The German Christian Democrats and the French Gaullists are parvenus in comparison.
The key to the Conservatives' record of success lies in an unequalled combination of adaptability, ruthlessness and political creativity. During their long history, they have changed sides - sometimes more than once - on virtually all the great questions dividing the political nation. They have been for protection and for free trade, for fiscal orthodoxy and for Keynesian economics, for local democracy and for relentless centralisation, for appeasing Hitler and for resisting him, for entry into the European Community and for keeping Europe at arm's length. One obvious conclusion is that the familiar language of right and left obscures the true meaning of the Conservative tradition. Was Disraeli right or left? Was Stanley Baldwin? Was Winston Churchill? The questions are not just unanswerable; they are meaningless. The Conservative Party is not like that. It is a successful protest movement against the reductionist mentality from which the language of right and left derives - the embodiment of inherited feelings and assumptions that long pre-date the era when such terms came into use.
That is why Cameron can't be caught in the traps that right-left thinkers in the Labour Party and the commentariat persist in laying for him. Right-left language can't capture him; he isn't in that business. But it does not follow that there is no underlying logic to the twists and turns of his policymaking. Like Blair in the 1990s, he is trying to reclaim that mythical, electoral El Dorado, "Middle England", from its increasingly bedraggled current occupiers. However, there is a big difference between Cameron's statecraft now and Blair's then. Blair was trying to lobotomise the Labour Party: to purge it of its history, to abolish its past. That was what the audacious term "New Labour" meant. There was still a Labour Party, but it was no longer the Labour Party. None of this is true of Cameron. The last thing he wants is to abolish the Conservatives' past. He wants to return to an earlier chapter of their history - to rediscover a venerable, and often dominant, strand in the Conservative tradition that the Thatcher revolution trashed, and to articulate it in the idiom of the 21st century.
I shall call that strand "Whig imperialist" - "Whig" because it emphasises the Whig themes of responsive evolution, gradual progress and flexible statecraft, and "imperialist" because, for most of its history, it has been intimately bound up with the British empire. The canonical Whig imperialist was Edmund Burke. He has gone down in history as the hammer of the French Revolution, and so he was. Yet he was much more than that. He once declared that, in a "contest of blood", he would side with the "poor and low". He was the leading parliamentary champion of the rebellious American colonists and fought with doomed passion against the abuses of British rule in India. Throughout his career, he tried to mitigate the wrongs that befell the Irish Catholics, to whom his mother's family belonged. For most of his life, extra-parliamentary reformers saw him as an ally. But he was for reform within a structure of inherited tradition.
The Whig-imperialist strand in British Conservatism held the field from the end of the First World War until the crisis of stagflation in the 1970s. In different ways, Baldwin, Churchill, Macmillan and Heath all exemplified it. Then Thatcher and her disciples - embodiments of a very different and much harsher Tory nationalist strand - drove it out of the seats of party power. It seems to me as certain as anything in politics can be that Cameron's overriding purpose is to return to it. He was a Thatcherite bag carrier in his early days in politics, but I doubt if he was ever entirely comfortable in that role. In any case, he has abandoned it. He is not a second Heath or Macmillan, still less a second Churchill or Baldwin. He is not even an imperialist. (It is difficult to be an imperialist if you have no empire.) But he is certainly a Whig - in style, in language and in statecraft.
Like Stanley Baldwin after the upheavals of the First World War and its stormy sequel, and R A Butler and Harold Macmillan after those of the wartime coalition and the postwar Labour government, Cameron's purpose is to accommodate his party to the cultural, social and political shifts of the past 20 years. This is both very simple and very complex. The objective is crystal clear; and it is well within reach, even if it hasn't been completely attained, as yet. But the road towards it is circuitous and full of holes. Cameron can't bring himself to jettison the whole of Thatcher's legacy, any more than the Blair-Brown regime could. Economic Thatcherism is still part of the common sense of the political class, Labour as well as Conservative, despite the battering it has received in the past two years. Cameron has no alternative up his sleeve, but nor has anyone else.
The current crisis has prompted a return to Keynesian economics all over the developed world, but only as a temporary expedient. The near-universal cry now is "business as usual". If Cameron were a giant among political leaders - a second Churchill or Charles de Gaulle - he might have a better cry to offer, but he isn't and he doesn't. A return to the strangulated corporatism that prevailed before the Thatcher years hardly fits the bill. Nor, however, does a return to Thatcherism. Britain has changed too much since the lady's defenestration; part of the point of Cameron's project is to escape from her monstrous shadow.
Against this background, Cameron's zigzags lose their mystery. On the critically important question of how Britain should relate to the rest of Europe, he has been more Thatcherite than Thatcher. His decision to pull Conservative MEPs out of the European People's Party (in effect the Christian Democratic group) and into an alliance of far-right fringe parties, repellent to the European mainstream, was an act of gratuitous and dangerous folly. It will yield no electoral dividends at home and nothing but trouble abroad. A Cameron government's natural allies on the European mainland would be Merkel's Germany and Sarkozy's France, but his shotgun divorce from the EPP has kicked both of them in the teeth.
Unlike Thatcher, Cameron can't turn to a friendly US administration to compensate for European isolation. The special relationship that British governments cherish means nothing to Barack Obama; and as regards having an ideological soulmate in Britain, it is Gordon Brown. The Obama administration patently wants Britain to play a central and constructive role in the EU. The more Cameron alienates the big players in European politics, the fewer friends he will have in the White House. I have never liked establishment talk of Britain "punching above its weight" in world affairs, but Cameron and Hague seem determined to punch below it. Churchill and Macmillan must be turning in their graves.
Yet Cameron's domestic agenda won't disturb their sleep. Labour politicians and Labour-inclined commentators are licking their lips at the prospect of a good old-fashioned, no-holds-barred slanging match with a neo-Thatcherite Conservative Party, blue in tooth and claw; and they are doing their best to paint Cameron in those colours. A Cameron government, they insist ad nauseam, would make "savage cuts" in social spending. There would be largesse for the few and misery for the many. The welfare state would be slashed to ribbons. The wicked witch would return to Narnia.
There is no mystery about this rhetoric. It is like a comfortable, baggy old jacket with patches on the elbows. All the wearer needs is a set of reflexes in reasonably good working order. Thinking is unnecessary. No wonder bewildered and disorientated Labour folk have seized on it like manna from heaven.
The trouble is that Cameron obstinately refuses to play the part they have allotted him. There are neo-Thatcherites in his party, but he is not one of them. True, he made some seriously bad moves in the early stages of the global economic crisis. Though he achieved a First in philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford, he appeared never to have heard of Keynes. Even now, his grasp of Keynesian theory is distinctly shaky. His rabble-rousing speech to the Conservative party conference last October suggested that he is unable to realise that public-sector deficits in a depression make the economy more productive than it would otherwise have been and the burden on future generations lighter - or that cutting the deficit before the economy has pulled out of depression merely delays recovery.
But deficit finance in a depression is one thing, a long-term structural deficit quite another. Cameron and Osborne have been right to insist that the latter can't be allowed to continue indefinitely. They are only saying, in loud and belligerent tones, what Alistair Darling and the Treasury have been saying more quietly. In truth, the differences between the parties over the structural deficit are now paper-thin. Everyone agrees that it is unsustainable, and that it must be cut drastically as soon as it is safe to do so. The painful questions of how big the cuts should be and when they should begin are matters of judgement, not principle. No one can possibly know in March 2010 what it will be right to do in September - much less in March 2011. The fencing between the Conservative and Labour front benches over these essentially technical matters is a charade.
However, there is - or at least there appears to be - a genuine philosophical difference between the parties over the size and role of the state. Cameron has repeatedly insisted that he wants a "radical redistribution of power" from the state to "citizens", "neighbourhoods" and "local government". He has declared that he stands for a "big society" in place of the "big state". His government would engage with "social entrepreneurs", "community activists" and "civic institutions". He offers "Conservative means" to "progressive ends". The standard Labour response is drearily predictable: how dare the Conservatives deck themselves out in progressive clothes? Their talk of redistributing power away from the state, and of substituting a big society for the big state, is nothing more than impudent code for a return to Thatcherism.
I think this is a dangerous mistake. Whatever Thatcher may or may not have done, she certainly did not procure a smaller state - or, for that matter, a bigger society. Her regime was one of the most statist in modern British history. As some of her ministers confessed, privatised industries were easier to control than nationalised ones. Marketisation - a more important feature of her reign than privatisation - was forced down the throats of a vast range of intermediate institutions by fiat from a power-hogging centre. The only such institution to escape her handbag was the Church of England.
Thatcher and her ministers said that they wanted a smaller state, and they probably meant it. But their approach was eerily reminiscent of the Soviet Communist Party's under Stalin: one day, the state would wither away but, in the meantime, the class struggle had to be intensified and the state made more powerful.
It is certainly true that Cameron has so far produced nothing more than mood music. But mood music matters. It doesn't tell you what the musician will do, but it does give you a window on his or her soul. Cameron's soul seems to me perfectly congruent with the Burkean, Whig-imperialist strand in British conservatism. It was Burke, after all, who saw the "little platoons" of civil society as the places where "public affections" germinated; and there is not much doubt that Burke would endorse the vision of a big society, rich in civil associations and governed on a light rein.
I also suspect that it chimes with the mood of a people tired of incessant badgering by bureaucratic busybodies. Instead of re-fighting the battles of the 1980s and trundling out the mouldering corpse of statist collectivism at every opportunity, Labour would do well to battle with Cameron on the ground he hopes to make his own. As Anthony Crosland used to say, the party should never forget that anarchist blood runs in its veins.
David Marquand's most recent book is “Britain Since 1918", published by Phoenix (£14.99 paperback)